A Knock at Midnight:
Why Jesus Called A Man A Fool
To my good friend Doctor Wells, to the officers and members of Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, my Christian brothers and sisters, I can assure you that it would take me the rest of my days to live up to that eloquent, beautiful introduction just made by this charming member of your congregation. It makes me feel very humble. And such encouraging words give me renewed courage and vigor to carry on in the struggle for freedom and human dignity. Im deeply grateful to your esteemed pastor for extending the invitation for me to be with you. And Im grateful to him for the support that he has given me in my humble efforts. You know, I learned a long time ago that you cant make it by yourself in this world. You need friends; you need somebody to pat you on the back; you need somebody to give you consolation in the darkest hours. And Im so grateful to all of the friends in the city of Chicago and to the many ministers of the gospel who have given me that kind of support and encouragement.
As you know, we are involved in a difficult struggle. It was about a hundred and four years ago that Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the Negro from the bondage of physical slavery. And yet we stand here one hundred and four years later, and the Negro still isnt free. One hundred and four years later, we still have states like Mississippi and Alabama where Negroes are lynched at whim and murdered at will. One hundred and four years later, we must face the tragic fact that the vast majority of Negroes in our country find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred and four years later, fifty percent of the Negro families of our country are forced to live in substandard housing conditions, most of whom do not have wall-to-wall carpets; many of them are forced to live with wall-to-wall rats and roaches. One hundred and four years later, we find ourselves in a situation where even though we live in a nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal, men are still arguing over whether the color of a mans skin determines the content of his character. Now this tells us that we have a long, long way to go.
And Im going to still need your prayer, Im going to still need your support. Because the period that we face now is more difficult than any weve faced in the past. But this morning I did not come to Mount Pisgah to give a civil rights address; I have to do a lot of that; I have to make numerous civil rights speeches. But before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I dont plan to run for any political office. I dont plan to do anything but remain a preacher.
And what Im doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man. Not merely his soul, but his body. Its all right to talk about heaven. I talk about it because I believe firmly in immortality. But youve got to talk about the earth. Its all right to talk about long white robes over yonder, but I want a suit and some shoes to wear down here. Its all right to talk about the streets flowing with milk and honey in heaven, but I want some food to eat down here. Its even all right to talk about the new Jerusalem. But one day we must begin to talk about the new Chicago, the new Atlanta, the new New York, the new America.
And any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men (Well) and is not concerned about the slums that cripple the soulsthe economic conditions that stagnate the soul (Yes) and the city governments that may damn the soulis a dry, dead, do-nothing religion (Yes, Amen) in need of new blood. And so I come to you this morning, to talk about some of the great insights from the scripture in general, and from the New Testament in particular. I want to use as a subject from which to preach: "Why Jesus Called A Man A Fool." (Yeah) "Why Jesus Called A Man A Fool." (Yeah)
I want to share with you a dramatic little story from the gospel as recorded by Saint Luke. It is a story of a man who by all standards (Yes, Speak, doc, speak) of measurement would be considered a highly successful man. (Yes) And yet Jesus called him a fool. (Yes) If you will read that parable, you will discover that the central character in the drama is a certain rich man. (Yes) This man was so rich that his farm yielded tremendous crops. (Yes) In fact, the crops were so great that he didnt know what to do. It occurred to him that he had only one alternative and that was to build some new and bigger barns so he could store all of his crops. (Yes) And then as he thought about this, he said, "Then Im going to do something after I build my new and bigger barns." He said, "Im going to store my goods and my fruit there, and then Im going to say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods, laid up for many years. Take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry." (Yes) That brother thought that was the end of life. (All right)
But the parable doesnt end with that man making his statement. (My Lord) It ends by saying that God said to him, (Yes) "Thou fool. (Yes) Not next year, not next week, not tomorrow, but this night, (Yes) thy soul is required of thee." (Yes)
And so it was at the height of his prosperity he died. Look at that parable. (Yes) Think about it. (Yes) Think of this man: If he lived in Chicago today, he would be considered "a big shot." (My Lord) And he would abound with all of the social prestige and all of the community influence that could be afforded. (Yes) Most people would look up to him because he would have that something called money. (Yes) And yet a Galilean peasant had the audacity to call that man a fool. (Yes)
Now Jesus didnt call the man a fool because he made his money in a dishonest fashion. There is nothing in that parable to indicate that this man was dishonest and that he made his money through conniving and exploitative methods. In fact, it seems to reveal that he had a medium of humanity and that he was a very industrious man. He was a thrifty man, apparently a pretty hard worker. So Jesus didnt call him a fool because he got his money through dishonest means.
And there is nothing here to indicate that Jesus called this man a fool because he was rich. Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth. Its true that one day a rich young ruler came to him raising some questions about eternal life and Jesus said to him, "Sell all." But in that case Jesus was prescribing individual surgery and not setting forth a universal diagnosis. You know, Jesus told another parable about a man who was very rich by the name of Dives, and Dives ended up going to hell. There was nothing indicating that Dives went to hell because he was rich. In fact, when Dives got in hell, he had a conversation with a man in heaven; and on the other end of that long distance call between hell and heaven was Abraham in heaven. Now if you go back to the Old Testament, you will discover that Abraham was a real rich man. It wasnt a millionaire in hell talking with a poor man in heaven; it was a little millionaire in hell talking with a multi-millionaire in heaven. So that Jesus did not call this man a fool because he was rich.
Id like for you to look at this parable with me and try to decipher the real reason that Jesus called this man a fool. Number one, Jesus called this man a fool because he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived. (Yes) You see, each of us lives in two realms, the within and the without. (Yeah) Now the within of our lives is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, religion, and morality. The without of our lives is that complex of devices, of mechanisms and instrumentalities by means of which we live. The house we live inthats a part of the means by which we live. The car we drive, the clothes we wear, the money that we are able to accumulatein short, the physical stuff thats necessary for us to exist. (My Lord)
Now the problem is that we must always keep a line of demarcation between the two. (My Lord) This man was a fool because he didnt do that. (Yes)
The other day in Atlanta, the wife of a man had an automobile accident. He received a call that the accident had taken place on the expressway. The first question he asked when he received the call: "How much damage did it do to my Cadillac?" He never asked how his wife was doing. Now that man was a fool, because he had allowed an automobile to become more significant than a person. He wasnt a fool because he had a Cadillac, he was a fool because he worshiped his Cadillac. He allowed his automobile to become more important than God.
Somehow in life we must know that we must seek first the kingdom of God, and then all of those other thingsclothes, houses, carswill be added unto us. But the problem is all too many people fail to put first things first. They dont keep a sharp line of demarcation between the things of life and the ends of life.
And so this man was a fool because he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived. He was a fool because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. This man was a fool because he allowed his technology to outdistance his theology. This man was a fool because he allowed his mentality to outrun his morality. Somehow he became so involved in the means by which he lived that he couldnt deal with the way to eternal matters. He didnt make contributions to civil rights. (Yes) He looked at suffering humanity and wasnt concerned about it. (Yeah)
He may have had great books in his library, but he never read them. He may have had recordings of great music of the ages, but he never listened to it. He probably gave his wife mink coats, a convertible automobile, but he didnt give her what she needed most, love and affection. (Yes) He probably provided bread for his children, but he didnt give them any attention; he didnt really love them. Somehow he looked up at the beauty of the stars, but he wasnt moved by them. He had heard the glad tidings of philosophy and poetry, but he really didnt read it or comprehend it, or want to comprehend it. And so this man justly deserved his title. He was an eternal fool. (Yes) He allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived. (Yes)
Now number two, this man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others. (Yes) Now if you read that parable in the book of Luke, you will discover that this man utters about sixty words. And do you know in sixty words he said "I" and "my" more than fifteen times? (My Lord) This man was a fool because he said "I" and "my" so much until he lost the capacity to say "we" and "our." (Yes) He failed to realize that he couldnt do anything by himself. This man talked like he could build the barns by himself, like he could till the soil by himself. And he failed to realize that wealth is always a result of the commonwealth.
Maybe you havent ever thought about it, but you cant leave home in the morning without being dependent on most of the world. You get up in the morning, and you go to the bathroom and you reach over for a sponge, and thats even given to you by a Pacific Islander. You reach over for a towel, and thats given to you by a turk. You reach down to pick up your soap, and thats given to you by a Frenchman. Then after dressing, you rush to the kitchen and you decide this morning that you want to drink a little coffee; thats poured in your cup by a South American. Or maybe this morning you prefer tea; thats poured in your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you want cocoa this morning; thats poured in your cup by a West African. Then you reach over to get your toast, and thats given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning you are dependent on more than half of the world.
And oh my friends, I dont want you to forget it. No matter where you are today, somebody helped you to get there. (Yes) It may have been an ordinary person, doing an ordinary job in an extraordinary way. Some few are able to get some education; you didnt get it by yourself. Dont forget those who helped you come over.
There is a magnificent lady, with all of the beauty of blackness and black culture by the name of Marian Anderson that youve heard about and read about and some of you have seen. She started out as a little girl singing in the choir of the Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And then came that glad day when she made it. And she stood in Carnegie Hall, with the Philharmonic Orchestra in the background in New York, singing with the beauty that is matchless. Then she came to the end of that concert, singing "Ave Maria" as nobody else can sing it. And they called her back and back and back and back again, and she finally ended by singing, "Nobody knows De Trouble I Seen." And her mother was sitting out in the audience, and she started crying; tears were flowing down her cheeks. And the person next to her said, "Mrs. Anderson, why are you crying? Your daughter is scoring tonight. The critics tomorrow will be lavishing their praise on her. Why are you crying?"
And Mrs. Anderson looked over with tears still flowing and said, "Im not crying because Im sad, Im crying for joy." She went on to say, "You may not remember; you wouldnt know. But I remember when Marian was growing up, and I was working in a kitchen till my hands were all but parched, my eyebrows all but scalded. I was working there to make it possible for my daughter to get an education. And I remember one day Marian came to me and said, Mother, I dont want to see you having to work like this. And I looked down and said, Honey, I dont mind it. Im doing it for you and I expect great things of you."
And finally one day somebody asked Marian Anderson in later years, "Miss Anderson, what has been the happiest moment of your life? Was it the moment that you had your debut in Carnegie Hall in New York?" She said, "No, that wasnt it." "Was it the moment you stood before the kings and queens of Europe?" "No, that wasnt it." "Well, Miss Anderson, was it the moment that Sibelius of Finland declared that his roof was too low for such a voice?" "No, that wasnt it." "Miss Anderson, was it the moment that Toscanini said that a voice like yours comes only once in a century?" "No, that wasnt it." "What was it then, Miss Anderson?" And she looked up and said quietly, "The happiest moment in my life was the moment that I could say, Mother, you can stop working now." Marian Anderson realized that she was where she was because somebody helped her to get there.
In a larger sense weve got to see this in our world today. Our white brothers must see this; they havent seen it up to now. The great problem facing our nation today in the area of race is that it is the black man who to a large extent produced the wealth of this nation. (All right) And the nation doesnt have sense enough to share its wealth and its power with the very people who made it so. (All right) And I know what Im talking about this morning. (Yes, sir) The black man made America wealthy. (Yes, sir)
Weve been herethats why I tell you right now, Im not going anywhere. They can talk, these groups, some people talking about a separate state, or go back to Africa. I love Africa, its our ancestral home. But I dont know about you. My grandfather and my great-grandfather did too much to build this nation for me to be talking about getting away from it. [applause] Before the Pilgrim fathers landed at Plymouth in 1620, we were here. (Oh yeah) Before Jefferson etched across the pages of history the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. (All right) Before the beautiful words of the "Star Spangled Banner" were written, we were here. (Yeah) For more than two centuries, our forebearers labored here without wages. They made cotton king. With their hands and with their backs and with their labor, they built the sturdy docks, the stout factories, the impressive mansions of the South. (My Lord)
Now this nation is telling us that we cant build. Negroes are excluded almost absolutely from the building trades. Its lily white. Why? Because these jobs pay six, seven, eight, nine and ten dollars an hour, and they dont want Negroes to have it. [applause] And I feel that if something doesnt happen soon, and something massive, the same indictment will come to America"Thou fool!"
That man said he didnt know what to do with his goods, he had so many. Oh, I wish I could have advised him. (My Lord) A lot of places to go, and there were a lot of things that could be done. There were hungry stomachs that needed to be filled; there were empty pockets that needed access to money. America today, my friends, is also rich in goods. (My Lord) We have our barns, and every day our rich nation is building new and larger and greater barns. You know, we spend millions of dollars a day to store surplus food. But I want to say to America, "I know where you can store that food free of charge: (Yes) in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of Gods children in Asia and Africa and South America and in our own nation who go to bed hungry tonight." (Yes)
There are a lot of fools around. (Lord help him) Because they fail to realize their dependence on others.
Finally, this man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on God. (Yeah) Do you know that man talked like he regulated the seasons? That man talked like he gave the rain to grapple with the fertility of the soil. (Yes) That man talked like he provided the dew. He was a fool because he ended up acting like he was the Creator, (Yes) instead of a creature. (Amen)
And this man-centered foolishness is still alive today. In fact, it has gotten to the point today that some are even saying that God is dead. The thing that bothers me about it is that they didnt give me full information, because at least I would have wanted to attend Gods funeral. And today I want to ask, who was the coroner that pronounced him dead? I want to raise a question, how long had he been sick? I want to know whether he had a heart attack or died of chronic cancer. These questions havent been answered for me, and Im going on believing and knowing that God is alive. You see, as long as love is around, God is alive. As long as justice is around, God is alive. There are certain conceptions of God that needed to die, but not God. You see, God is the supreme noun of life; hes not an adjective. He is the supreme subject of life; hes not a verb. Hes the supreme independent clause; hes not a dependent clause. Everything else is dependent on him, but he is dependent on nothing.
One day Moses had to grapple with it and God sent him out and told him to tell the people that "I Am sent you." And Moses wondered about it, and he said, "Well, what am I to tell the folk?" He said, "Just go on and tell them that I Am sent you. And then if you need a little more information, let them know that my first name is the same as my last, I Am that I Am." And God is the only being in the universe that can say that "I Am," and stop there. Whenever I say, "I am," I have to say, "I am because of"because of my parents, because of my environment, because of hereditary circumstances. And each of you has to say you are because of something. But God is life supreme. Now God, the power that holds the universe in the palm of his hand, is the only being that can say, "I Am," and put a period there and never look back. And dont be foolish enough to forget him.
You know, a lot of people are forgetting God. They havent done it theoretically, as others have done through their theoriespostulated through the God-is-dead theologybut a lot of people just get involved in other things. (Yes) And so many people become so involved in their big bank accounts and in their beautiful expensive automobiles that they unconsciously forget God. So many people become so involved in looking at the man-made lights of the city that they forget to think about that great cosmic light that gets up early in the morning in the eastern horizon and moves with a kind of symphony of motion like a masterly queen strolling across a mansion and paints its technicolor across the blue as it movesa light that man could never make. Some people have become so involved in looking at the skyscraping buildings of the cities that theyve forgotten to think about the gigantic mountains, kissing the skies, as if to bathe their peaks in the lofty bluesomething that man could never make. So many people have become so involved in televisions and radar that theyve forgotten to think about the beautiful stars that bedeck the heavens like swinging lanterns of eternity, standing there like shining silvery pins sticking in the magnificent blue pincushionsomething that man could never make. So many people have come to feel that on their own efforts they can bring in a new world, but theyve forgotten to think about the fact that the earth is the Lords and the fulness thereof. And so they end up going over and over again without God.
But I tell you this morning, my friends, theres no way to get rid of him. And all of our new knowledge will not diminish Gods being one iota. Neither the microcosmic compass of the atom nor the vast interstellar ranges of interstellar space can make God irrelevant for living in a universe, where stellar distance must be measured in light years, where stars are five hundred million million miles from the earth, where heavenly bodies travel at incredible speeds. Modern man still has to cry out with the Psalmist, "When I behold the heavens, the work of thy hands and all that thou hast created; what is man, that thou is mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou hast remembered him?"
God is still around. One day, youre going to need him. (My Lord) The problems of life will begin to overwhelm you; disappointments will begin to beat upon the door of your life like a tidal wave. (Yes) And if you dont have a deep and patient faith, (Well) you arent going to be able to make it. (My Lord) I know this from my own experience. (Yes) The first twenty-five years of my life were very comfortable years, very happy years; didnt have to worry about anything. I have a marvelous mother and father. They went out of the way to provide everything for their children, basic necessities. I went right on through school, I never had to drop out to work or anything. And you know, I was about to conclude that life had been wrapped up for me in a Christmas package.
Now of course I was religious; I grew up in the church. Im the son of a preacher, Im the great-grandson of a preacher, and the great-great-grandson of a preacher. My father is a preacher, my grandfather was a preacher, my great-grandfather was a preacher, my only brother is a preacher, my Daddys brother is a preacher. So I didnt have much choice, I guess. [laughter] But I had grown up in the church, and the church meant something very real to me, but it was a kind of inherited religion and I had never felt (My Lord) an experience with God in the way that you must have it if youre going to walk the lonely paths of this life. (Yeah) Everything was done, and if I had a problem I could always call Daddy, my earthly father; things were solved.
But one day after finishing school, I was called to a little church down in Montgomery, Alabama, and I started preaching there. Things were going well in that church; it was a marvelous experience. But one day a year later, a lady by the name of Rosa Parks decided that she wasnt going to take it any longer. She stayed in a bus seat, and you may not remember it because (I do) its way back now several years, but it was the beginning of a movement where fifty thousand black men and women refused absolutely to ride the city buses. And we walked together for 381 days. (Yes, sir) Thats what we got to learn in the North: Negroes have to learn to stick together. We stuck together. [applause] We sent out the call and no Negro rode the buses. It was one of the most amazing things Ive ever seen in my life. And the people of Montgomery asked me to serve as the spokesman, and as the president of the new organizationthe Montgomery Improvement Association that came into being to lead the boycottI couldnt say no. And then we started our struggle together. (Yeah)
Things were going well for the first few days, but then about ten or fifteen days later, after the white people in Montgomery knew that we meant business, they started doing some nasty things. (Yes) They started making nasty telephone calls, and it came to the point that some days more than forty telephone calls would come in, threatening my life, the life of my family, the life of my children. I took it for a while in a strong manner.
But I never will forget one night very late. It was around midnight. And you can have some strange experiences at midnight. (Yes, sir) I had been out meeting with the steering committee all that night. And I came home, and my wife was in the bed and I immediately crawled into bed to get some rest to get up early the next morning to try to keep things going. And immediately the telephone started ringing and I picked it up. On the other end was an ugly voice. That voice said to me, in substance, "Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you arent out of this town in three days, were going to blow your brains out and blow up your house." (Lord Jesus)
Id heard these things before, but for some reason that night it got to me. I turned over and I tried to go to sleep, but I couldnt sleep. (Yes) I was frustrated, bewildered. And then I got up and went back to the kitchen and I started warming some coffee, thinking that coffee would give me a little relief. And then I started thinking about many things. I pulled back on the theology and philosophy that I had just studied in the universities, trying to give philosophical and theological reasons for the existence and the reality of sin and evil, but the answer didnt quite come there. I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born about a month earlier. We have four children now, but we only had one then. She was the darling of my life. Id come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. And I sat at that table thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me any minute. (Go ahead) And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted, and loyal wife who was over there asleep. (Yes) And she could be taken from me, or I could be taken from her. And I got to the point that I couldnt take it any longer; I was weak. (Yes)
Something said to me, you cant call on Daddy now, hes up in Atlanta a hundred and seventy-five miles away. (Yes) You cant even call on Mama now. (My Lord) Youve got to call on that something in that person that your Daddy used to tell you about. (Yes) That power that can make a way out of no way. (Yes) And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me and I had to know God for myself. (Yes, sir) And I bowed down over that cup of coffeeI never will forget it. (Yes, sir) And oh yes, I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. (Yes) I said, "Lord, Im down here trying to do whats right. (Yes) I think Im right; I think the cause that we represent is right. (Yes) But Lord, I must confess that Im weak now; Im faltering; Im losing my courage. (Yes) And I cant let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak." (Yes) I wanted tomorrow morning to be able to go before the executive board with a smile on my face.
And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, (Yes) "Martin Luther, (Yes) stand up for righteousness, (Yes) stand up for justice, (Yes) stand up for truth. (Yes) And lo I will be with you, (Yes) even until the end of the world."
And Ill tell you, Ive seen the lightning flash. Ive heard the thunder roll. I felt sin- breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, (Never) never to leave me alone.
And Im going on in believing in him. (Yes) Youd better know him, and know his name, and know how to call his name. (Yes) You may not know philosophy. You may not be able to say with Alfred North Whitehead that hes the Principle of Concretion. You may not be able to say with Hegel and Spinoza that he is the Absolute Whole. You may not be able to say with Plato that hes the Architectonic Good. You may not be able to say with Aristotle that hes the Unmoved Mover.
But sometimes you can get poetic about it if you know him. You begin to know that our brothers and sisters in distant days were right. Because they did know him as a rock in a weary land, as a shelter in the time of starving, as my water when Im thirsty, and then my bread in a starving land. And then if you cant even say that, sometimes you may have to say, "hes my everything. Hes my sister and my brother. Hes my mother and my father." If you believe it and know it, you never need walk in darkness.
Dont be a fool. Recognize your dependence on God. (Yes, sir) As the days become dark and the nights become dreary, realize that there is a God who rules above.
And so Im not worried about tomorrow. I get weary every now and then. The future looks difficult and dim, but Im not worried about it ultimately because I have faith in God. Centuries ago Jeremiah raised a question, "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?" He raised it because he saw the good people suffering so often and the evil people prospering. (Yes, sir) Centuries later our slave foreparents came along. (Yes, sir) And they too saw the injustices of life, and had nothing to look forward to morning after morning but the rawhide whip of the overseer, long rows of cotton in the sizzling heat. But they did an amazing thing. They looked back across the centuries and they took Jeremiahs question mark and straightened it into an exclamation point. And they could sing, "There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. (Yes) There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul." And there is another stanza that I like so well: "Sometimes (Yeah) I feel discouraged." (Yes)
And I dont mind telling you this morning that sometimes I feel discouraged. (All right) I felt discouraged in Chicago. As I move through Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama, I feel discouraged. (Yes, sir) Living every day under the threat of death, I feel discouraged sometimes. Living every day under extensive criticisms, even from Negroes, I feel discouraged sometimes. [applause] Yes, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my works in vain. But then the holy spirit (Yes) revives my soul again. "There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul." God bless you. [applause]
Delivered at Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, on 27 August 1967. MLKEC.
The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.